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The 2021 Restaurant Aesthetic Is Optimistic, Nostalgic, and Vacation-Obsessed

The hot new restaurant design trend taps into our need for escape

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striped chairs with pink side chairs and green checkered floor
Strawberry Moon at the Goodtime Hotel in Miami Beach.
Giovanny Gutierrez/Chat Chow TV

New restaurants are taking their decor on vacation.

In Charleston, South Carolina, the hospitality group Gin & Luck has opened Little Palm in the Ryder Hotel. Instead of the dark, moody, and dramatic interiors of Gin & Luck’s Death & Co bars in New York, Denver, and Los Angeles, Little Palm is decked out in pink palm-frond wallpaper and turquoise tile. Further south in Miami, at Pharrell Williams and David Grutman’s new restaurant Strawberry Moon in the Goodtime Hotel, designer Ken Fulk channeled midcentury resort destinations like Havana and Acapulco, with a pink scalloped bar dotted with green tile, pink-and-white-striped curtains, and wicker everywhere.

The look is not relegated to warm-weather locales. In Brooklyn, Fandi Mata’s soaring warehouse space is adorned with Moroccan tiles and filled with potted palms for a Mediterranean-meets-industrial vibe. Kokomo, a restaurant that opened last summer in Williamsburg, also transports diners with a bamboo bar, a plant-filled patio, and Bob Marley’s iconic lyric “Everything is gonna be alright” painted as a backdrop for their lively outdoor dining area. The New York version of vacay vibes is a little bit darker and grittier, but the impulse to make restaurants feel like sunny retreats is the same: We’re all desperate for a break from the daily grind — even if it’s just for a few hours over dinner.

A lot has been written about how COVID-19 will change the design of restaurants. From touchless technologies to four-season outdoor dining, the forecasts all point to how the layout and operations will change. As new bars and restaurants have begun to open again, we can finally start to see how all that time at home is impacting restaurants’ interiors — especially in Miami, which has had full-capacity dining since September 2020. With just a handful of new spots, it’s hard to predict where things are headed, but nostalgia-laced vacation decor is one of the first clear trends we can name looking at post-vax restaurant interior design.

Take a look at the biggest openings, and you’ll see glimmers of decades past, and in particular the 1920s and ’50s, two periods when America partied after wars (and in the ’20s, after a pandemic, too). In July, Los Angeles-based H.Wood Group is opening an outpost of their roaring ’20s-themed supper club Delilah inside the Wynn Las Vegas; it’s influenced by the earliest supper clubs of Las Vegas from the 1950s. In addition to the ’50s-influenced Strawberry Moon, Fulk designed the newly opened ZZ’s Sushi Bar with hints of midcentury styling, including bentwood banquettes, palm-frond lights, and clamshell-shaped dining chairs.

The ZZ’s dining room, with blue patterned chairs with clamshell backs.
ZZ’s Sushi Bar in Miami.
Giovanny Gutierrez/Chat Chow TV

Todd-Avery Lenahan, president and chief creative officer of Wynn Design & Development, suggests this craving for a sense of history has been building for years. “A younger audience has been drawn to legacy design because millennials in particular have become fatigued by the trendy throwaway quality of so much that’s forced upon consumers today,” Lenahan told Eater. “Therefore design that has a greater sense of story and permanence has become highly appealing during this turbulent socioeconomic era.”

“Trendy throwaway” design has been the hallmark of the so-called millennial look described in Molly Fischer’s essay “The Tyranny of Terrazzo,” published ominously in early March 2020. In that essay, Fischer writes, “Ever since modernism brought industry into design, tastes have cycled between embracing and rejecting what it wrought. A forward-looking, high-tech style obsessed with mass commercial appeal will give way to one that’s backward-looking, handmade, authenticity-obsessed — which will then give way to some new variation on tech-forward mass style.” The millennial style — clean but quirky, cute but occasionally self-serious — touched everything from dishes to deodorant. And then millennials got locked inside their houses and apartments, staring at all those blob-adorned ceramics, minimally designed skincare products, and pastel-packaged third-wave coffee.

In this post-vaccine moment, diners are craving something more layered, more nuanced than the pale pinks and blond woods that dominated pre-pandemic. We want a sense of history, but instead of the pure nostalgia of the aging MAGA crowds, young diners recognize that the past was only great for a privileged few. What diners are responding to is history with a twist — maybe even a sense of humor. Fulk points out that his designs, and indeed other nostalgic-seeming spaces, are not pure historical recreations of, say, Acapulco’s Los Flamingos hotel in its midcentury zenith. Instead, Fulk says, “They feel evocative of another time or place, even if that place didn’t ever really exist. I don’t know what Miami in the 1950s was like, but I can imagine what it might’ve felt like to be there in its heyday — a glamorous time when my parents might have danced to a big band on their honeymoon. You take that feeling and create something that’s utterly modern and unlike anywhere else.”

That harkening-back-while-looking-forward is seen in the Panorama Room, designed by Parts and Labor Design, in the Graduate hotel on Roosevelt Island in New York City. Marc Rose and Med Abrous, the restaurateurs behind the project, told Vogue the design for the new 18th-floor restaurant was inspired by the Futurism of the early 20th century. “Because we felt we were doing something unprecedented in NYC, we decided to really embrace the future,” says Rose. The chrome and glass call back to Futurism’s obsession with the speed and motion of the Machine Age, and the velvet booths are vaguely retro. But the overall effect of the space feels like something from the not-too-distant future.

Alluding to the near past can also summon a feeling of escape. The Reagan-era revival that has swept the design world for the last five years can still be seen in restaurants, but this time around it’s more Miami Vice than Memphis. The Ettore Sottsass-inspired designs (all that terrazzo, all those squiggles) are being replaced with something that looks more like a chic grandma’s place in Boca (see those clamshell chairs at ZZ’s). “The 1980s was a very American sort of moment,” says Fulk. “They had that bit of flash and fun, but also that attitude of confidence.” (It’s a trend you’re likely also to see reflected in diners’ outfits too, as there is seemingly no end to ’80s and ’90s fashion trends to be revived.) For older millennials like me, the Miami Vice vibes are a reminder of our childhoods, but I wonder if there’s something else at work here. In the cyclical nature of design, it’s typical for trends to get plucked out from the period just before you were born. So if the ’80s-90s aesthetic appeals to Gen Z, it might have the bonus of making millennials feel young and hip, too.

Millennials craving the next new thing may also be responsible for the pendulum swing away from the black boxes and minimalist white interiors that were so popular in the aughts and early teens. In 2021 restaurants are full of happy colors with swaths of turquoise, orange, and especially pink (Little Palm and Fandi Mata both feature the rosy hue). Restaurant designers have dialed up the intensity from the pre-pandemic dusty pastels to decidedly pop-y shades. Color feels current again.

The poolside bar at Little Palm at the Ryder Hotel in Charleston.
Little Palm’s dining room featuring frond wallpaper and coral-color banquettes and chairs.
The Little Palm dining room.
Mike Ledford

The connective thread through the various influences right now — the ’50s abundance, the ’80s confidence, the candy colors — is optimism. Line up photos of the new restaurants and it’s clear they share an aesthetic of unapologetic joy — think playful wallpaper, cheerful lighting, and peppy stripes.

Together, these style trends suggest restaurant diners want a break — not just after the pandemic, but from the darkness of the Trump years. We want to dine in a Wes Anderson version of a Boca Raton beach club, to put our troubles behind us while we put the rest of the pieces of our world back together. After nearly a year and a half of dining at home, these happy places feel right: Don’t you want to enjoy your first meals out in a place designed to make you smile?

“It’s hard to describe it as a design direction, but I do think that part of the DNA of them is that they are these incredibly optimistic spaces,” says Fulk of Strawberry Moon and ZZ’s Sushi Bar. “They are hopeful fun spaces that are purposely designed to celebrate, come together, and to actually be near one another. Who would have ever thought that that felt like such a rarefied thing?”

Correction, July 27, 2021: This article was corrected to show that Marc Rose and Med Abrous are restaurateurs and that Parts and Labor Design designed the Panama Room.

Laura Fenton is the author of The Little Book of Living Small. Her writing has also been published in Better Homes & Gardens, Curbed, New York magazine, and Real Simple. She lives in Jackson Heights, Queens.